March 28, 2002

Resurrection Day 2002: Not Peace But a Sword

In times of discouragement, or even despair, hope asserts that our circumstances will change. In the rhythms of life, an unseasonal frost may intervene, but winter assuredly, eventually gives way to spring. A half-year ago, our nation wept, mourning the murders of thousands of our countrymen. Today, with the arrival of spring, our nation, still at war, has begun to bring justice to the enemies who attacked us.

And Easter, honored this week, is the celebration of spiritual spring. As much as autumn plantings picture death, the tender green shoots of spring break forth as signs of life and rebirth.

Scholars disagree over whether the name “Easter” is derived from Eostra (a Scandinavian goddess of dawn or spring) or Ostern (a Teutonic fertility goddess), both pagan figures honored at festivals celebrating the vernal equinox. Traditions associated with these festivals include the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and Easter eggs, painted with the bright colors of spring, signifying growth and new life. The Christian holiday builds on the traditions of the Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach (the derivation of Pascha, another name for Easter), celebrating deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

Pope Victor I (c. 189 - 198) standardized Easter to a Sunday holiday, and in 325 the Council of Nicaea set Easter’s date in relation to the paschal moon. The Gregorian calendar correction of 1582 placed Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon following the vernal equinox, falling between March 22 and April 25.

As we survey our place in this nation and our nation’s place in the world this Holy Week, we constitutional conservatives must acknowledge we have many outright enemies and legions of mere opponents arrayed against us. But we are one with the Lord, Jesus Christ, in this, although no events have ever seemed so hopeless as those surrounding the first Easter, no days have been as surprising and conflict-riven as the last days Jesus walked this earth.

This week we remember much death and many sacrifices, and these are fitting days for our nation to contemplate and honor recent sacrifices on our behalf.

What is true sacrifice? It is surely more than mere loss. Sacrifice requires the voluntary surrender of something precious or dear, in service to a purpose assessed as more valuable than the loss.

And that illuminates the nature – and necessity – of sacrifice. Justice in certain cases demands it. But to comprehend sacrifice fully, we should examine the ultimate sacrifice, the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which we memorialize this Good Friday. In one sense, this act was the greatest injustice ever. Interviewing Jesus to ascertain criminal guilt, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, turned from asking “What is truth?” to say, “I find no crime in this man ” (Luke 23:4; RSV). Upon learning that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under Herod’s jurisdiction as king of Israel, Pilate transferred the case. However, also finding no fault in Jesus, Herod sent Him back and Pilate then stated, “Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him.”

In another sense, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was the fusion of perfect love and perfect justice. Because we owe God complete obedience, we have no means to make restitution for our sins. Doing what we ought to do in any instance merely zeroes our balance for that accounting entry; we have no coin or currency that will repay the negative sum of our accumulated sins. And so, only God Himself could rectify that debt on our behalf, in a sacrificial act that is simultaneously purely loving and purely just.

Despite our recent losses, we cannot fathom the despair that engulfed the disciples of Jesus after the Crucifixion, as they saw only the injustice of the act. Looking back, because we know the rest of the story, we can scarcely imagine the unexpectedness of the Resurrection. Scant days before, their Leader had entered Jerusalem triumphantly, as a King should. But on the day we commemorate as Good Friday, he had been put to death in a most ignoble manner. On the third day after the Crucifixion, walking along the road to Emmaus, a pair of Christ’s disciples explained their despondency and sorrow over the death of Jesus: “We trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel” (Luke 24:21). Little did the two know they were speaking their despair to the Risen Lord.

And the injustice of the Jihadi attacks on our country September 11th should be clear to anyone who admits that innocents should be spared, and only the guilty should be recompensed with proportionate punishment. But this is not the belief of our attackers, as voiced by terror mastermind Osama bin Laden: “If avenging the killing of our people is terrorism, then history should be a witness that we are terrorists. Yes, we kill their innocents, and this is legal, religiously and logically.” Bin Laden and his murderous cohorts are steeped in militant Islam, which makes stunningly false claims of justification for the murder of innocents. Another shocking example of radical Islam from two weeks ago in Mecca, Saudi Arabia: Fourteen schoolgirls died and fifty others were injured, trapped in a burning school building when religious police prevented their escape because they were not wearing the head-to-toe covering abayas.

International political analyst Daniel Pipes summed up the views of Jihadi terrorists and their philosophical adherents, noting, “Islamists … make politics the heart of their program. They see Islam less as the structure in which individuals make their lives and more as an ideology for running whole societies. …Revealingly, militants compare Islam not to other religions but to other ideologies.”

But like the many and dispersed enemies of Jesus, His own disciples had mistakenly believed this world could be made right through human action alone. None had understood that redemption would require recourse to Almighty, Eternal God, and that nothing lasting and good could be formed from the resources of earthly governments alone.

The chief priests, arguing for the death of Jesus, had said, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15), setting the starkest terms possible for the eternal conflict between temporal evil and transcendent good. And the conflicts today are at root no different. As Pilate did before them, these claimants to government supremacy and moral equivalency dispute truth, attempt to evade accountability, then end by acquiescence in taking innocent life, among other acts of intense immorality.

The historical accuracy of the Gospel accounts has been well established. Eyewitness reports of meetings with Jesus after His death are numerous, mutually corroborative – and convincing. No other possibility besides true resurrection can adequately explain the behavior and beliefs of the Christians living at that time. And as Charles Colson notes, “If archaeology proves the Bible’s accuracy in thousands of historical details, why would it be any less accurate in its other claims?”

The Resurrection is the central fact that distinguishes Christianity, not from Islam alone, but also from all other faiths. Only Christianity claims that its founder was more than a representative for God, but proved He was God Himself. Only God could raise Himself from the dead, and only God could have standing to ransom us from our sin-indebtedness, through a substitutionary sacrifice.

As Jesus explained: “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own. As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd; Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father” (John 10:14-18).

And the apostle Paul noted several years later, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is vain. …And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. …If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15: 14-19).

Nevertheless, if Christ is risen indeed, then we Christians ourselves are fundamentally and radically changed – and our value as precious in God’s eyes is both acknowledged and reinforced. Even more than that, we are purchased, redeemed and adopted; once slaves of our sins, we are reborn in our Lord as children of the Most High God.

When Jesus cried out from the Cross, “It is finished,” our redemption was complete. Our Risen Lord returned, resurrected, to prove that His sacrifice was not in vain. The hope of our noble national experiment in liberty, so despised and envied by our Jihadi enemies, is based in the belief that we are valuable as moral beings created in the image of God, thus as worthy of sacrifice as we are also called to sacrifice. The hope of Easter is that we turn from despair and humbly acknowledge our debts to our Creator as we accept the free gift of resurrection to eternal life through our Risen Lord, Christ Jesus.

No matter how many and how daunting the tasks and challenges before us, we serve the Risen Lord; we have no king but Christ Jesus. We have only to follow His commandments, rather than turning to submit to claims of powers and rulers in this world. Then we must wait to be surprised by Our Lord, who both cautioned and comforted us about living beyond despair to rejoice in hope: “Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy” (John 16:20) and “These things have I spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

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